Weekend reading - the best business books to pass the COVID-19 lockdown time

Brian Sommer Profile picture for user brianssommer April 17, 2020
It’s old school maybe, but what else are you going to do once your remote work is done, the kids are asleep and you feel unfulfilled or unenlightened? You get a book to expand your thinking and improve yourself...such as these ones.

(via PIxabay)

If you’re like me, you’ve had time to clear the desk, catch up on past projects and do some overdue housekeeping. I busted out a stack of business books I’ve been meaning to read. Here are some of the best ones I liked (so far!). 

Value Proposition Design by Osterwalder, et.al. (Wiley)

(via publisher)

This book offers up a ton of quick insights that marketers, consultants and sales professionals should know/use. It’s presented in a very graphical design format so it can be read quickly but don’t underestimate the value it offers.

I’d love to send a copy of this book to every tech company that wants to give me a briefing on their latest creation. MOST of those calls are atrocious as the vendor struggles to tell me anything even vaguely related to a value proposition. What I suffer through are unfocused function/feature product demonstrations and history lessons about the origins or sales successes that the firm has had. If I am getting inundated with so many of these unfocused, time-wasting demonstrations, I can’t imagine what their sales people are boring prospects with. 

If your firm loves to discuss bits and bytes instead of how your solutions will positively change its users, get this book and do the exercises! (Note to CMO’s and PR flacks: If I have to ask you/your colleagues what your value proposition, ideal customer profile and top messages are during a briefing, someone’s not doing their job!)

Stall Points by Olson and Bever (Yale University Press)

book 2
(via publisher )

Oh, this one’s worth multiple read throughs. The authors have tracked the growth of large firms and documented why growth stalls as firms grow. It examines the errors these firms (and their leaders) make along the way. If you track tech companies, you’ll see plenty of examples covered in this book and it should make you wonder about many of the big software firms today.

I particularly liked a lot of this book and this checklist of strategy assertions in the intro is one that I review all the time when assessing ERP vendors:

  • “Our customers will continue to value our premium-priced innovations.”
  • “Our customers are willing to pay higher prices for our great service.”
  • “Our brand has power – it protects us from new competitors.”
  • “We accept lower market share for high margins.”
  • “Our quality enables us to sustain a price position in the market that is ‘good enough but not the best’.”
  • “We are planning some major acquisitions that will ramp up our growth.”
  • “Our core market is getting saturated – we need to step out into greenfield opportunities.”
  • “The business in our portfolio might be viewed too broad, but they are complementary – when one business is in a down cycle, others tend to be up.”
  • “It’s okay to take a growth time-out to fix core operations.”
  • “Our senior team is very effective – we’ve all grown up and worked together for years.”

I suspect activist shareholders and private equity firms are hip to many of the stall points described in this book. When they see these signals, they know that tech leaders are pursuing bad strategies, the share price is suffering, planned acquisitions will become expensive wastes of capital and more.  

Read this book!  (and their predecessor book Business Model Generation)

Aligning Human Resources and Business Strategy by Linda Holbeche (Butterworth Heinemann) / HR Transformation by Dave Ulrich, et.al. (McGraw Hill Professional)

book 3
(via publisher)

I’ve been toying with the idea of writing a book on HR transformation but my angle wasn’t in how HR must transform itself but in what role HR should play in major digital transformation efforts that firms are undertaking. As part of that research, I got my hands on whatever I could on the subject.

These two books were the best on the subject and both are still highly relevant to HR leaders. For CHROs, both books are crammed with guidance as to how to better align HR with the organization’s strategy and direction. I marked up a lot in each book as the counsel in each applies to transforming the HR department but much of it can also be applied to helping other parts of the organization change, too. 

While both books were written several years ago (Ulrich’s in 2009 and Holbeche’s in 1999), the lessons are still very relevant. Given the upheaval and change impacting organizations via COVID-19, HR leaders will be dealing dramatic and traumatic impacts on their workforce for some time. I added these books to this list specifically for their value in guiding HR leaders in chaotic times. 

The Tyranny of Metrics by Jerry Muller (Princeton)

Book 4
(via publisher)

Metrics drive perfectly sane people to do stupid, illogical things.

I’ve been bottled up in a jet aircraft for upwards of an hour while the plane sits right at the gate. Technically, the pilot gets credit for an “on-time departure” even though the plane has gone nowhere. It’s a “departure” if the doors are closed and the jetway got pushed back. 

I witnessed a top Pharma executive cram so much product into the firm’s distribution channel that medicines often expired long before they ever got near a pharmacy, hospital or doctor. Why did he do this? This executive’s incentive compensation was tied to a zero-stockout metric.

And, since his incentive pay was 2X his regular pay, he created a major financial headache for his employer. People will definitely do what they’re measured on. 

Software firms really need to read this book especially if you’re producing analytics and capture people-based metrics. Readers will likely conclude that metrics for inanimate items (e.g., machine sensor data that reports product compliance within established norms) are pretty safe bets.

But, when you try to get people to behave differently due to new measures, all hell can bust loose. 

The Tyranny of Metrics is a relatively quick, albeit sobering read. Read it and decide if your firm is screwing up its performance review process, incentive compensation, sales management, financial reporting and other processes. (Chances are, you are!)

What’s next on my reading list?

If the stay at home order continues, I’ll be looking at:

  • The Age of Heretics by Art Kleiner (Jossey Bass).
  • Future Crimes by Marc Goodman (Anchor Books).
  • The Industries of the Future by Alec Ross (Simon & Schuster).
  • Where Good Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson (Riverhead Books)

book 5
(via publishers)

PS - don't forget to laugh! 

I did manage to pull off my bookshelf a couple of fun books to re-read. One is the National Lampoon High School Yearbook Parody. And, the other is The Authoritative Calvin and Hobbes. I don’t think I need to explain either. 

If we must stay safe, let’s at least get smarter and have a couple of laughs. Take care everyone!

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